Cluster Review #1 (First Five Books of the Year)

Hello and welcome to my first cluster review! For this review, I will be giving brief overviews of the first five books I read in 2020. These reviews will be less thorough than the full reviews I will be doing in the future due to the fact that so much time has passed since I’ve read these. It wouldn’t be fair to do a full review on books that aren’t very fresh in my memory. I have also used the publisher’s description when giving a summary of the book. In this cluster, there is quite an eclectic group of books! Some I really enjoyed, and others not so much. Leave a comment below and let me know if you’ve read any or are wanting to read any of these books, or if they remind you of something else you’ve read!

  1. Other Words for Home” by Jasmine Warga Other Words for Home (9780062747808): Warga, Jasmine ...
  • Year of Publication: 2019
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Summary: “Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind her, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her home town start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.

    At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. The American movies that Jude has always loved haven’t quite prepared her for starting school in the U.S. –and her new label of “Middle Eastern,” an identity she’s never known before. But this life also brings unexpected surprises—there are new friends, a whole new family, and a school musical that Jude might just try out for. Maybe America, too, is a place where Jude can be seen as she really is.

    This lyrical, life-affirming story is about losing and finding home, and most importantly, finding yourself.”

    Trigger warnings: family separation, war, racism/xenophobia.
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Themes: Family. Bravery. Change. Kindness. Courage. Identity. Home. Love. Belonging.
  • Windows and Mirrors: I read this book with my students for the first time this year (before beginning distance learning) and it was a wonderful experience for all of us. It is very much a window into the experience of someone living in a part of the world most of them had never heard of, in a war-torn country (something else very eye-opening for them), and it was also a window into a new culture for them (they were fascinated by all the new foods and Arabic words they learned from the book). However, it was also a mirror for many of them since many of my students are emergent bilinguals. As the main character moves to a new country, has to learn a new language, and adjust to an unfamiliar culture, my students really connected with her struggles and desires. They also really connected with her desire to fit in and figure out who she is in this new place, without losing her old self and the place she used to call home. Because my students connected so strongly with the main character, this “mirror” experience helped them be able to follow the parts of her journey that were more unfamiliar to them (the “window” aspects of the story). This book was a perfect blend of windows and mirrors for my students.
  • Overall Thoughts: Even though this was the first book I read in 2020, it has really stuck with me. It’s beautifully written in verse, and it highlights a really important experience that isn’t often portrayed in children’s literature. As a Syrian immigrant in the central part of the United States, Jude (the main character) faces a lot of racism and encounters many ignorant people who don’t understand her, her family, or her culture. When these moments happen in the story, it sparked really great conversations with my students about why it’s important to always treat people with kindness and to not judge a book by its cover. I truly loved this book (even reading it as an adult), it was uplifting, eye-opening, and made difficult topics accessible and understandable.
  • Recommendation: I absolutely recommend this book for adults and children alike. It’s a quick read since it’s written in verse (I finished it in one day). It is a middle grade novel, and since it’s written in verse it includes a lot of figurative language. Due to this, I would recommend it for students fifth grade and up. It covers some mature topics (war, violence, even menstruation) and uses academic and figurative language that might make it difficult for younger students. However, with a lot of scaffolding and support to help students with the high-level language and unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts (references to Middle Eastern food, pop culture, geography, etc.), it can definitely be accessible to students at a range of reading levels. It’s an important story for children to read, and I absolutely recommend it (especially as a read-aloud).

2. “The Vine Witch” by Luanne G. Smith and Susannah Jones

The Vine Witch: Smith, Luanne G.: 9781542008389: Books
  • Year of Publication: 2019
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Summary: “A young witch emerges from a curse to find her world upended in this gripping fantasy set in turn-of-the-century France.”
  • Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Susannah Jones)
  • Themes: I honestly don’t remember. Usually, the books that stick with me long after I’ve read them are the ones with really compelling themes. Needless to say, this one did not stick with me.
  • Windows and Mirrors: A window into turn-of-the-century France? The life of vineyard owners?
  • Overall Thoughts: I read this one early in 2020, and it really did not stick with me. Overall, I remember being somewhat bored with the meandering plot, and the romance in the story not making much sense. They go from hating each other to loving each other without a real reason. In general, fantasy isn’t the genre I typically go for, but I love historical fiction and sometimes enjoy romance (and this novel had both of these elements).
  • Recommendation: I can’t really say that I recommend this book. I think there are better fantasy novels out there. However, if you’re interested in France, wine, historical fiction, or stories about witchcraft, you might want to read it and decide for yourself! I certainly didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t particularly memorable for me either.

3. “The Scholar” by Dervla McTiernan The Scholar: A Novel (9780143133698): McTiernan ...
  • Year of Publication: 2019
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Summary: “When DS Cormac Reilly’s girlfriend Emma stumbles across the victim of a hit and run early one morning, he is first on the scene of a murder that would otherwise never have been assigned to him... As Cormac investigates, evidence mounts that the death is linked to a Darcy laboratory and, increasingly, to Emma herself. Cormac is sure she couldn’t be involved, but how well does he really know her? After all, this isn’t the first time Emma’s been accused of murder…”
  • Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Aoife McMahon)
  • Themes: Trust. Corruption. Power.
  • Windows and Mirrors: This book does a great job showcasing Ireland and the lives of detectives/police officers. It’s hard for me to judge the accuracy of these portrayals, though. For me, it was a window into a culture, life, and career that I’m not familiar with. For others, these things may reflect something they have more of a connection with.
  • Overall Thoughts: I’ve really enjoyed both of the books in this series that I’ve read so far. They’re intense, gripping, and entirely unpredictable. They’re very dark, but not overly violent or gory. I really enjoyed this one and am looking forward to reading the third installment.
  • Recommendation: I definitely recommend this book (and series!). This is a solid mystery novel. I also really recommend listening to the audiobook, because the narrator (Aoife McMahon) did an incredible job.

4. “The Martian” by Andy Weir

  • Year of Publication: 2011
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Summary: “Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

    Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

    After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

    Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

    But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit — he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”
  • Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Wil Wheaton)
  • Themes: Teamwork. Courage. Never give up. Trust. Friendship. Ingenuity. Communication. Humanity.
  • Windows and Mirrors: This was definitely a window into the “realities” (not entirely sure how realistic all of it was) of space travel and what it might be like to be completely alone and fighting for your life when the odds are against you. I also think Mark Watney was a very realistic character, and that a lot of people might connect with his sense of humor, optimism, and resilience. In this sense, Mark Watney could serve as a “mirror” for many people.
  • Overall Thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was entertained throughout; it held my attention the whole time as I waited to see what would go wrong next and what creative solution Mark would come up with to survive. I thought it was cleverly written, and the often casual tone of the narrator helped balance out a lot of the more technical descriptions and space jargon. If anything, the character development could have been a little stronger. Watney’s unfaltering optimism seemed a little unrealistic (though I did find his plucky attitude entertaining), and the author could have dug a little deeper into the trauma he likely (definitely) would have experienced while going through something like this. That being said, although it wasn’t a perfect book, I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining.
  • Recommendation: I definitely recommend this book. It’s a great work of science fiction; it includes a lot of science and space travel but it’s still accessible for those who aren’t too knowledgeable about these topics (like me). However, if you’re not a fan of first person narration, you may not enjoy the writing style as much as I did. It’s written in log entries and relies heavily on first person narration. It’s not something that bothered me, but I know some people aren’t a fan of this and that’s okay! I also recommend the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton; he did a fantastic job capturing the personality and sarcastic sense of humor of Mark Watney!

5. “Then She Was Gone” by Lisa Jewell

Then She Was Gone: A Novel - Kindle edition by Jewell, Lisa ...
  • Year of Publication: 2017
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Summary:
    She was fifteen, her mother’s golden girl. She had her whole life ahead of her. And then, in the blink of an eye, Ellie was gone.

    It’s been ten years since Ellie disappeared, but Laurel has never given up hope of finding her daughter.

    And then one day a charming and charismatic stranger called Floyd walks into a café and sweeps Laurel off her feet.

    Before too long she’s staying the night at this house and being introduced to his nine year old daughter.

    Poppy is precocious and pretty – and meeting her completely takes Laurel’s breath away.

    Because Poppy is the spitting image of Ellie when she was that age. And now all those unanswered questions that have haunted Laurel come flooding back.

    What happened to Ellie? Where did she go?

    Who still has secrets to hide?”
  • Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Helen Duff)
  • Themes: Family. Resilience. Courage. Faith. Never give up.
  • Windows and Mirrors: To me, this book overall was more of a “window” since I have not experienced any of the major events of the plot nor the trauma of the mother in the story. However, I saw a little bit of myself in Ellie (the teenager who disappears). She is trusting, smart, hardworking, and focused on preparing for her future. She also has a close relationship with her mother, but there are still thoughts and information she keeps to herself.
  • Overall Thoughts: I really enjoyed this psychological thriller, and I look forward to reading more by Lisa Jewell in the future. It was dark and the twists and turns kept my attention the whole time. There were certain elements of the mystery that I thought were a little predictable, but overall the plot was creative and the ending was mostly unexpected.
  • Recommendation: I definitely recommend this book. It was a great psychological thriller that kept my attention throughout. I really enjoyed the writing style and the way it was written from multiple perspectives. However, it was pretty dark and disturbing at times, so keep this in mind if this is something you tend to stay away from.

Thank you so much for reading! Share your thoughts by commenting below, and keep an eye out from my next cluster review!

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